In ‘City of Falling Angels’, Berendt writes about a period of La Serenissima when she was in her last golden moments. The ornate palazzi of the Canale Grande were either thrown open for dazzling parties where guests arrived in gondole and light spilled from the windows onto the dark water outside; or were beginning their inevitable decline as owners lost money or interest and closed over the shutters on rooms of forgotten decadence with paint now peeling and gilded stucco crumbling. Visitors to Venice now are, for the most part, denied a glimpse of the opulent interiors that played host to that heady world of popping champagne in Rococo ballrooms and the sometimes frictive mingling of great American art collectors with ancient noble Venetian families.
There are a few of these historic palazzi that grant entrance to the public by way of the art collection. But once you add all the paraphernalia of plastic sign posts, protective ropes, modern exhibition props and a flood of tourists it rather ruins the atmosphere.
But what about a fully furnished interior whose art collection was amassed and curated within that same space by a great Venetian family but which you can visit virtually alone?
Palazzo Cini Collection
The Palazzo Cini’s gallery was born in 1984 during Venice’s last aria as a world of glamour and titles, be it of Venetian nobility or international stars, and managed to avoid the melancholy fate of so many other great family palazzi.
Its delightful collection had been amassed by Vittorio Cini (1885-1977), a shrewd entrepreneur, liberal politician and gifted art collector. With an overarching vision he curated a collection of hundreds of paintings, drawings, sculptures and decorative artifacts that exist harmoniously together in the tasteful interior of his palazzo. Rich with a carefully refined taste, he elevated the space from a home to a cultural expression of his, and Venice’s, wealth, knowledge and civilisation.
Perhaps due to its proximity to the Galleria Academia, the Palazzo Cini seems rather overlooked. There isn’t a ‘low’ tourism season as such in Venice and yet in mid-September I was one of three visitors in the gallery that morning, and for most of the time was even alone. After a brief initial moment of disconcertion the situation became one of rather unbelievable luxury. I wandered freely, stopping frequently to sketch an attractive face or detail without feeling pressurised to stop ‘hogging’ the painting. When the gallery assistants weren’t in the room I could even indulge myself in a moment of fantasy as a personal guest to a private home.
Cini’s collection includes artists such as Titian, Tiepolo and Jacopo Pontormo, but you won’t find anything overwhelming in scale or jarring in subject matter. He clearly selected works based partly on their suitability for a domestic environment, meaning most are intimate, delicate gems. In fact, the collection reveals sides to artists not generally appreciated in comparison to their blockbuster works in the neighbouring Academia.
One charming room is dedicated to the Tuscan Renaissance, and was used by Cini to receive illustrious guests. As such it features some of the best works in the collection. Most hosts might choose to exhibit works that express power or glory as a kind of posturing and suggestion of their dominant persona. These works, however, are notable rather because they are exquisitely beautiful and subtle, a clever choice by Cini. For example above an ornate table sits a Madonna and Child by Piero della Francesca. The colours are pale and angelic, and the figures are firmly architectural. The Madonna features an elegant elongated neck and tapered fingers. The stillness of the image is absolute and provokes admiration for its simplicity.
Nearby is Botticelli’s poetic Judgement of Paris exemplifying characteristic fluttering drapery, idyllic gentle landscape and flowing figures. The subject matter is a subtle hint at the intellectual prowess of both host and guests well versed in the Classics.
Finally we come to the Pontormo, a work of extraordinary foresightedness. We are confronted by an arresting direct gaze from a young man in black, accompanied by another side-on figure. Painting in the 16th century, an image of such psychological scrutiny allowing no distraction from garments or background was unusual. Cini shows his visitors a clear understanding of art historical quality.
Various other rooms contain an endless collection of china, ornate furniture and magnificent Venetian glass chandeliers. Palazzo Cini might not be the most extravagant interior in Venice, but the opportunity to wander almost alone as though in a private house, curated from the ceiling decoration to the rugs, is not to be missed.
To reach the Palazzo Cini from the bus/railway station follow signs to Academia, then continue past and take the first left, marked with a sign for the Cini Collection.
Palazzo Cini, Campo San Vio, Dorsoduro 864 Venice.
11 am-7 pm (ticket office closes at 6:15 pm),
closed on Tuesdays
The exhibition “Rediscovered Masterpieces from the Vittorio Cini Collection” is on until 15th November.
Full – 10.00
Concession – 8.00
Free for Under 15s